For seven days a year,
the place is known as Burning Man.
For the other 358 days this
and soul-searching haven
is known as the
Black Rock Desert
— Story and photos by Michael A. Mariant
The ground began to shudder, intensifying into a strong shake. The soft clay of the playa turned to sponge as the undulating vibrations spread across the area. Ripples broke the placid surface of the water of the hot spring as faint wisps of steam above the water turned into thick clouds as the vibrations reached farther down into the geothermal holdings of the spring. Abruptly, the Black Rock desert was pierced by the shrill whistle of the freight train and the thunderous roar of the engines as it sped past the hot springs at 70 mph.
So much for the quiet, peaceful serenity of Black Rock — a completely flat playa that stretches 30 miles wide and more than 150 miles long in a northeast to southwest direction — that is the lake bed from ancient Lake Lahontan. With a surface of more than 8,000 square miles, Lake Lahontan covered most of Northern Nevada and Eastern California with its shoreline slowing decreasing over the past 10,000 years. Only Pyramid Lake remains as a natural holding of the original ancient lake.
Known for the past years as the temporary home of the weeklong Burning Man festival, where as the “Burning Man Survival guide” states, thousands of people descend upon the playa in a search for radical self-expression and self-reliance.
The remainder of the year people ranging from recreational folks, thriving on the unique natural characteristics of the playa and surrounding mountains, to individuals who find spiritual peace in their soul-searching visit, and even the common tourists may visit this unique place they have heard so much about.
Mixed among the day and overnight visitors are a few hundred locals who work in the Black Rock border towns of Gerlach and Empire or in the scattering ranches that surround the desert playa.
The surging interest in the area has grown recently in the past years as British and American teams have been attempting to break the land speed record, utilizing the rare, flat surface of the desert in attaining a speed of 763 mph.
The local’s back yard
According to locals, before Burning Man and before the rocket-equipped cars raced across the lake bed, there was just a small but constant stream of people who came for its historical attributes or to do a little bit of rock-hounding.
According to an Empire resident, they don’t mind all the new visitors. Actually, they enjoy them.
“We make money off of them. Last year at that Burning Man thing, we collected their trash as they left, you know, and charged them for it,” said Ivan, who refrained from providing a last name. “Gotta make the money off of them before they’re gone.”
There have been active attempts in the past years to move the Burning Man Festival away from the Black Rock region, or more precisely, out of Washoe County. The excess of trash and influx of people coupled with the necessary county services for fire, police and medical aid have forced Washoe County to charge Burning Man organizers for the services. And for the past two years, Burning Man, despite its $100 entrance fee, failed to pay all of its debts. Each year, the event moves to a new location, sometimes off of county land and onto private property, in an attempt to skirt a potential ‘eviction notice.’
But for Ivan, who has lived in the Gerlach/Empire area for over 15 years, aside from the seven days of Burning Man, the Black Rock desert is his family’s back yard.
On a cool April evening, Ivan’s 10-year-old son Wesley is celebrating his birthday with his brother Ivan Jr., 12, and sister Dennae, 8, by taking a warm dip in the Trego springs. As the sun sets and a brisk breeze skirts around the hills surrounding the hot spring on the playa’s edge, Ivan breaks away from the laughs and shrills of his children to rest on the homemade wooden steps that drop down into the 90-degree water and reflect on a local’s life.
“Everybody that lives here likes it here,” he said. “It’s not like working in the Bay Area with all the people.”
Ivan works at the Gyp plant in Empire — where United States Gypsum fabricates drywall just 10 miles south of Black Rock.
“We live in Empire, but come out here quite a bit, a lot more in the summer. Sometimes there’s people (tourists) here, but usually not during the week.”
Despite profiting off of the Burning Man visitors, Ivan still deplores the tourists who arrive with disregard for the area.
“People come out, camp to close (to the springs) and leave all their trash,” Ivan said with a bit of disgust in his voice. “Who do they think is going to pick it up?”
Just 50 yards away lie a scattering of shotgun shells and casings from a recent target shooting that recreational gun fans left behind after their visit.
“Do you know how long that takes to, you know, break down?” Ivan questioned.
A recreational flight
About three miles west of the Trego hot springs lie another spring, considerably smaller but popular with visitors as it provides shade from the searing sun via the surrounding trees. The trees also provide a shelter for the lush vegetation that forms a habitat for a vocal ensemble of frogs. Camped for the evening at Frog Pond is Doug Cook, a Truckee contractor who regularly takes flight to the desert, literally. Cook owns a MicroLight, a two-seater hang glider with a large prop-based motor on the rear. Cook has been flying hang gliders for 22 years, but started riding the MicroLights just four years ago. And Black Rock is his new-found flying home.
“It’s such a great place to fly. It’s quiet, beautiful and hopefully warm,” Cook said in the cool early-morning air. In only his second visit to Black Rock to fly, Cook is rising on heat thermals and dive bombing back toward the flat playa.
“Early this morning, I was chasing a coyote across the playa, kind of herding it,” Cook laughed.
Also camped at Frog Ponds is Dan Pablo, a third-year ranch hand from Soldier Meadows, which lies at the northern edge of the playa.
Pablo shares a local angle providing the folklore on the history of the area, including the appropriately named Frog Pond: “This guy built a hunting lodge-restaurant here on this spot.” The sole structure adjacent to the pond is the remains of the lodge’s chimney, rising up 50 feet.
“After a while, with more and more people stopping by to use the hot springs and eat at his restaurant, he up and started selling frog legs. You know the frogs here don’t hibernate for the winter.”
Pablo works three months on the ranch, and spends the rest of the year as a logger in Mendocino, Calif. Strewn among his gear is brushes, canvases and watercolor paints, as Pablo declares himself “a better painter” than a cowboy. Vibrant colors cover the small 4-by-6 inch pictures that he claims are “abstract scenes of Black Rock.”
Pablo spends his days off wandering the region and the hills surrounding the playa as a tourist, but stopping into town as a local. And in his short, curt dialogue, he paints a quick scene of local life.
“There are five bars and no grocery stores in Gerlach. The nearest store is over in Empire, but they lick their fingers at the checkout,” Pablo jokes. “I bag my own groceries.”
The Empire General Store is located right on the highway next to the entrance to the Gypsum plant. Wearing “Empire General Store: Conveniently located in the middle of nowhere” aprons, two employees always greet patrons as they enter the last-chance grocery store. Inside, everything from video rentals to a delicatessen to standard grocery staples can be found on the shelves. Inventory isn’t a big issue though, as items are evenly spaced apart from each other, with dust on some of the older items.
While Cook worked on his MicroLight and Pablo sorted through his paintings, a small compact car pulled up to the edge of Frog Pond. The driver rolled down the window and inquired to Pablo, “Is this a hot spring?”
Gopal Slavonic, a 27-year-old artist and musician from Nevada City had brought his two visiting European friends to Black Rock to share what he had only heard about.
“Amazing. There is nothing, but there is a lot,” Alessandra DePalma quietly exclaims in broken English as she looks out to the playa. DePalma, a resident of Amsterdam, Holland is on her first visit to America and has arrived in Black Rock after leaving Los Angeles the day before.
“The nature here is beautiful with all the different landscapes,” DePalma said while gesturing up toward the snow-capped mountains that rise abruptly 4,000 feet above the playa’s edge.
Slavonic slowly stepped away from the hot spring towards the playa.
“There is not a lot of people here which makes it so peaceful,” Slavonic said. “It’s like a large isolation tank in another worldly place.”
Quick Facts about Black Rock
– Black Rock Desert, at more than 4,500 square miles, is located 2 1/2 hours northwest of Reno off Highway 447. Take Interstate 80 east to Fernley to Highway 447 north past Pyramid Lake to Gerlach.
– Inquire locally about the condition of roads and surface conditions of the playa before venturing out on them. According to the Gerlach Texaco gas station, a tow out of the thick playa mud can run upward of $300.
– Despite its close proximity to the towns of Gerlach and Empire, the playa is a desert. Carry one gallon of water per person per day, a first-aid kit, emergency supplies and map of the area.
– The weather in the Black Rock region can range from icy, cold and windy to hot, dry and windy; all in the same day. Pack and dress appropriately.
– Early ill-fated settler routes to California cross the playa floor, with signpost markers denoting the original routes toward the present town of Gerlach and also north toward Soldier Meadows. Markers have plaques stating the route name and the direction of the travelers.
– There are several hot springs that surround the perimeter of the playa, with temperatures ranging from 60 to well above 100 degrees. Several of the springs are on unposted private property. Exhibit caution before entering a hot spring.
– The playa floor is at an elevation of 3,848 feet while the ancient Lake Lahontan had a surface elevation of 4,380 feet. The surrounding mountains show signs of terracing, flat shelves which were the lake’s shorelines.
– Highway 447 on the way to Black Rock passes through the dry lake basin of Lake Winnemucca, showing signs of terracing above and below the road, tufa spires and geothermal pods.
– Several battles in the late 1800s between settlers and the military against native Indian forces occurred throughout the region. Indian projectile points and arrowheads still abound in these battle areas. These are items of history and should be left behind for generations to enjoy.
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The reopening of U.S. Highway 50 starts 8 a.m. today for residents and property owners in preparation for its full opening 8 a.m. Tuesday.